Why I love NBC’s Hannibal – Part II

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC's Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC’s Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Read Part I

It’s been a while since the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up, I know – well, ‘a while’ in today’s always-constantly-updated online world anyway – but I had neither the time nor the inclination to pen this follow-up to my initial post straight away.

First off, it’s fun to just luxuriate in an intense, contentious season finale before commenting on it; to let the swathe of online commentary wash over you and even, perhaps, share in some of it.

Of course, those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about, and I doubt there’s a lukewarm opinion on how the blood-soaked and – though the final outcome remains teasingly to be seen – tragic final reel of what was a superb season of television plays out.

You either love the tortuous downward spiral (oh, but doesn’t it look so exquisite!) Bryan Fuller has put you through or you don’t, and this season in particular, I think, urges you to take a final decision on how you feel about the overall raison d’etre of this unapologetically baroque show.

Because while the first season had as its commercially-friendly ballast a ‘monster of the week’ structure – with the Will-and-Hannibal storyline unspooling in increments in the background – Fuller and co. have clearly been given carte blanche this time around.

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Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

This is not a smoothly calculated show. It’s a show that grows and develops, contorting to fit its shape – sometimes its development is fractious and misjudged but it’s certainly moving towards something. The fact that it’s a prequel to an established book-and-film property already gives it a final end-point, but Fuller is also mining deeper into Thomas Harris’ Hannibal mythos in a way that feels both daring and appropriate.

I’ve mentioned the danger of overstretching a storyline beyond its limits in the previous post. But in taking the risk to ‘gild the lily’ of what was previously established by Harris and his cinematic forebears, Fuller actually ends up giving us something more; and yes, in this sense more is more because it builds convincingly on the beguiling psychological bind that the Hannibal stories are bound by.

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With the right tools and the right brains at the wheel, the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer not only aiding a ‘consulting detective’ – let’s acknowledge the intertexual link between Will Graham and Sherlock Holmes, please – with the crimes he’s charged with, but also seeking a bona-fide relationship with him, is rich dramatic pickings whichever way you slice it (hur, hur).

A friend of mine pointed out how Fuller’s Hannibal is more of a Freudian creation, as opposed to the ‘Jungian’ archetype we see in the Harris novels and their accompanying film adaptations.

I tend to agree, not only because NBC-Hannibal is still a slippery figure in every sense of the word, as he’s not had a chance to solidify into the kind of antagonist-consultant role he occupies in the canon narratives. (Going by a sort-of Proppian definition of his archetypal role in the source material, could we perhaps say that he’s both central antagonist AND wise old man figure? Both Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi?)

NBC-Hannibal is harder to define in those terms, but he is of course also the show’s organising principle and thematic core at the same time (note that he is not, however, the protagonist – that journey belongs to Will – even though the show is named after him).

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In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Here’s the crux of it all: this is a show about therapy; or, at least, it’s a show that takes the raison d’etre of therapy and applies it to a dimension none of us would have dared to venture, given the choice.

This isn’t just because Hannibal Lecter himself happens to be a therapist (and a good one at that). Having therapy as a conceit – and it’s a consistent one for the show – means that the show is about the unravelling of the self, about a constant attempt to cut through the confusion and dross of everyday consciousness to arrive at some deeply embedded truth about yourself.

This is of course evident in Will’s zig-zagging psychological journey across the show’s two seasons, but in a coup of form vs content that elevates the show to what feels like a bona fide – though almost accidental – work of art, it’s also matched in both the narrative structure and cinematographic landscape of its second season.

Whereas Hannibal’s diabolical mentoring of Will came in fragmented drops in Season One – due to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the one killer per episode structure – come the second season it gets a broad sweep, largely owing to Will’s uncomfortable – and highly vulnerable – predicament.

To be concluded

Why I Love NBC’s Hannibal – Part I

Taylor Swift

Standing with perfect symmetry at the centre of the frame, pop starlet Taylor Swift here embodies divine indifference.

Framed by two other ‘stages of man’ she stands as an aspirational vortex; a totemic reminder of what most of us want but cannot have.

The man to the left, jeans tattered, with the beaten-down expression familiar to so many ‘supporting characters’ in paintings by any number of the old masters, is on his way out: he has tried to scale heights but never managed to reach them, and it is clear that this dawns on him with fresh immediacy every waking day now – now, that he’s realised just how few of those days he has left.

To the right is his younger counterpart, his clothes clean-pressed and chosen with sensitivity to colour-coordination, the shades completing a look of sharp impersonality.

And in the middle stands the figure of Taylor Swift: even when disembodied away from the stage, from red carpet events and curated photo shoots, immaculately – because casually – beautiful, her pose strikingly Christ-like but free of any suffering.

Her weary gaze at the paparazzo; she’s so young and already so jaded by the mechanisms of the world – her world, not ours.

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It’s easy to wrench deities and archetypes out of pop culture representatives, partly because they pitch themselves that way. In some sense they can’t help but do this: see how Taylor Swift, simply by standing in front of a gardening shop, lends an aura of something other than what meets the eye.

The thrill of recognition is of course at the heart of what makes celebrity culture tick: bumping into celebrities, even spotting them on the street, becomes a story worth retelling to friends and family; a memory to be cherished, even in this day and age, where the ubiquitous torrent of images of the same celebrities should be enough to make us entirely jaded.

But the thrill of recognising someone who is supposedly ‘important’ – or at least, special enough for us to separate them above ourselves, and even our peers – remains a key instinct, and it’s not just limited to ‘real’ people (though the layers of simulacra through which celebrities are often transmitted to us do complicate this substantially, I’ll admit).

One such example – of a modern talismanic presence in fiction, I mean – is the figure of Hannibal Lecter. Originally a character in the bestselling Thomas Harris crime-horror trilogy of novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), he has of course been elevated to the status of pop culture royalty thanks to his cinematic outing via Anthony Hopkins.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This was of course a career-defining performance, but it’s worth noting that the constituent elements making up Hannibal Lecter aren’t to be sniffed at. I wish I had a keener, more intuitive grasp of which literary factors, exactly, contributed directly to his creation. Perhaps it’ll serve as a research strand for another day, when I’m in a more industrious mood. Suffice to say that, whoever or whatever may have inspired Harris to breathe life into his archly horrific – and horrifyingly charming – figure, the fact remains that he has comfortably eclipsed them for quite some time, emerging as a trademark fictional character in his own right.

Hannibal Lecter is often citied as one of the great villains in the history of recent narrative. It’s not too hard to see why. He is an intriguing juxtaposition of opposites. Like most outré characters in fiction – the kind of characters whose composition in and of itself is exciting, beyond how they serve the story: think of Dickens – he is fascinating even in isolation. A respected psychiatrist who is also a cannibal. A highly cultivated – ‘cultured’, if you will – self-made man (there is something of an American projection of ‘European’ culture here) who is also in touch – and indulgent of – the most barbaric human impulses.

And now that he has made the jump into television – a medium undergoing its own steady renaissance – his domination has continued apace.

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

I am a proud evangelist for Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, produced and aired by NBC, in which the eminently watchable, razor-sharp-cheekboned Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the titular role.

Though its first season was a workable enough affair – relying on the basic thrill of recognition of seeing Hannibal Lecter again to spruce up what was essentially an FBI murder-mystery procedural of the Criminal Minds/CSI ilk – come the second season the series reaches full bloom, allowing the ominous relationship between Hannibal and his ‘charge’ – in this case, a younger version of Red Dragon’s Will Graham – to be exploited for its “fucked-up” potential to the fullest.

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

“Fucked-up” isn’t a cue for cheap titillation here. Being a prequel series to the trilogy we’re used to, the show by necessity has to ‘stretch’ Harris’ central conceit to fill up more story-time. Ordinarily, this would not augur well: stretching anything beyond its organic narrative confines usually results in stories that remain – to broadly apply the term – ‘unnecessary’; a limp extension of its mother-narrative, a decorative but hollow appendage.

No, “fucked-up” here extends the central taboo at the core of Harris’ stories – receiving useful investigative advice from a cannibalistic murderer, “fighting evil with evil” – to a mythic state.

Wrenched free from the three-act structure of novels and films, NBC’s Hannibal exploits the thrill of recognition to drive these characters to their logical narrative conclusion: away from mere innovative kinks, curios of the crime fiction genre, away from the exigencies of the ‘thriller’ plot structure, and further into the realm of the archetype… the realm of myth.

To be continued.